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Turf talk growing closer to city vote
March 31, 2009, 12:00 AM By Michelle Durand

Rolando Rubio III/Daily Journal Assistant coach P Jay. Plutzer works on batting fundamentals with Wesley Schulze, 11, during the Bats' little league practices at Highlands Park in San Carlos. City officials are considering whether to put artificial turf there.


As the decision whether to go forward with synthetic turf in Highlands Park grows closer to a City Council decision, opponents are kicking up their campaign by collecting petition signatures and directly asking city leaders to rethink use of a material they say is dangerous, expensive and unnecessary.

In an open letter to councilmen Bob Grassilli, Randy Royce and Brad Lewis — three members who voted in favor of renovating the lower athletic field with synthetic turf — resident Mike Ahern asked them to reconsider based on new information, including health studies which suggest washing clothes worn during play on the fields to be washed separately to avoid potential toxic contamination.

"Can you imagine the frustration that San Carlos parents will experience when faced with this recommendation and/or when parents find cut tire bits have ruined their other clothes? What about the wasted water of all this extra washing?” Ahern wrote in the e-mail.

Water conservation, alongside greater playing time for children, is often cited by proponents as reason to use synthetic turf instead of natural grass.

Like other opponents, Ahern also cites a recent no vote by the San Carlos Youth Advisory Council and a slew of health alerts from the U.S. Center for Disease Control, the New England Journal of Medicine and American Academy of Pediatrics.

As of Monday afternoon, more than 300 people had signed an on-line petition circulated by Save San Carlos Parks asking the council to "go natural.” Along with their names, many signers added comments bolstering their stance.

"Please do not allow this toxic artificial turf to pollute our planet and cause harm to children!!!,” wrote Danielle Marman. "I have fond memories of play that are triggered by the smell of grass. I don’t want my children’s memories triggered by the stench of rubber,” wrote Urs Kellenberger. "Synthetic turf is always more expensive and doesn’t ever reach break-even with the natural grass options because of high initial and replacement costs,” wrote Richard K. Crone. "These funds are to be used to improve our parks, not plasticize them,” wrote Paul Muller.


Most in favor of synthetic turf

Yet Royce said, of the dozens of e-mails he received on the topic, approximately 90 percent are in favor of using synthetic turf.

"No two are alike. Some have lived here a long time, or are involved in sports. Every story has a different reason,” Royce said.

Royce wants to read the final reports before making any personal decisions and said it is too soon to know if the City Council will have enough information by the April 13 meeting to vote.

"There is no reason to rush into it if there is doubt. We have adequate time. But if there is enough information, there may be no reason to wait,” he said.

Like those on both sides of the issue, Royce said finances and safety are the key elements.

The natural versus synthetic debate has been boiling in San Carlos for nearly a decade. During that time, other Peninsula cities have jumped on the synthetic turf bandwagon and renovated multiple fields with lesser degrees of public concern. In San Carlos, however, the issue has sparked hours of public meetings, multiple opinions, a number of votes and at least one commission resignation — but no completed projects.

That run could change if the city moves forward with plans to renovate the Highlands Park lower athletic field with synthetic turf.

After negotiations fell apart with the San Carlos Elementary School District to tackle the city’s list of needy fields by first converting Heather School’s land, the city moved to Highlands Park.

The plan calls for converting the surface of the Highlands Park lower field from natural to synthetic turf. The field is an area of approximately 31 percent of the 11.25-acre city park. The conversion is expected to increase play space by 43.5 percent and eliminate the annual six-week maintenance closure period. During construction, the parking lots will be out of commission but the project isn’t expected to otherwise affect park use.


Various concerns

Opponents, though, say the problem is not necessarily what happens during renovation but afterwards. The list of concerns includes the price tag, the cost of water to keep the turf cool, exposure to chemicals lingering in the recycled tires use to make the turf and the presence of resistant staph documented in children playing on the material.

After a preliminary evaluation of the project, the City Council unanimously agreed to move it forward with a less-stringent mitigated negative declaration rather than a full Environmental Impact Report. The 45-day public comment period closed in early March, about the same time the Youth Advisory Council publicized its 5-4 opposition.

Planning Director Deborah Nelson was not available for comment on the public comment period or preliminary report.


A long history of controversy

The apparent differences in opinion over synthetic turf is nothing new. The Highlands Park recommendation squeaked by with a 3-2 vote, with dissension by Councilman Matt Grocott who wanted Crestview Park and Councilman Omar Ahmad who wanted another 45 days to negotiate with the school district over Heather School.

Ironically, a 28-member Citizens Field Committee formed in December 2004 recommended the lower field of Highlands Park and Heather School. However, the Parks and Recreation Commission voted in favor of looking at Tierra Linda Elementary School. The decision led Commissioner Bob Bredel, who sided with the minority, to resign from the panel.

The council later ended a two-night public hearing by voting to install artificial turf at Tierra Linda and Central middle schools and natural sod at Highlands Park and Heather School. Two weeks later, the council voted again, deciding 3-2 in favor of analyzing the idea of installing synthetic turf at Heather.

The council then shot down spending $30,000 on a feasibility study on the costs and benefits of replacing the sand-based turf of Highlands Park’s lower athletic field with a soil-based alternative, saying there was little need to spend up to $2 million on a renovation that wouldn’t extend playing hours. The council moved to Heather School until it could not reach a 30-year use agreement with the school district.

When the city returned to Highlands Park as a priority, former Parks and Recreation Director Barry Weiss supported the move in a staff report, noting that "this field is the largest and only full-size, fully-lighted field in San Carlos ... Taking this action would provide the best return on investment to the city of all the options we have reviewed.”


Info Box: The preliminary staff report on the Mitigated Negative Declaration is available online at www.cityofsancarlos.org. The final staff report on the Mitigated Negative Declaration will be released April 9. The San Carlos City Council will discuss the documents at its April 13 meeting, 7 p.m., City Hall, 600 Elm St., San Carlos.


Michelle Durand can be reached by e-mail: michelle@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102.


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